It’s finally the moment we’ve all been waiting for- the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special has finally arrived! And I’m here to recap it for those whose brains crapped out in unrestrained glee during its premiere, or for anyone who doesn’t actually watch Doctor Who, but recognises that this will be the only thing anyone talks about until their racist uncle gets drunk with the family on Thanksgiving. This is a doozy of an episode, so let’s get right to it.
Clara has been teaching youths about Marcus Aurelius –we know this is proper British school because they aren’t learning about him from Gladiator, like I did. She and the Doctor are reunited, though almost instantly interrupted as U.N.I.T’s leader Kate Stewart hauls the TARDIS up via helicopter and drops it in the middle of Trafalgar Square, which no one seems to react to, save possibly her dorky assistant (she’s dorky because glasses! And an inhaler! And a scarf like Four’s!), Osgood. There they take Eleven and Clara to view a 3D painting (it’s bigger on the inside!) of the Time War.
Flashback adventures! Hell yes! We see the final days of the Time War. The Doctor (John Hurt edition- technically he’s One, but One is William Hartnell, so I shall instead refer to him as Zero here) carves “No More” to the Daleks and steals his TARDIS and a mysterious weapon. The Gallefreyan council discusses the weapon he has taken, claiming it is so powerful it gained sentience -really putting the ‘I’ in iOS. He lands in a desert. The weapon he stole is a pretty box, which immediately personifies itself as Rose Tyler/Bad Wolf. (Way to bring it back, Moffat!) He agonises over using this weapon a bit, but rationalises that it would be better if he (and everyone else) were dead than still fighting this war, because the Daleks will destroy the entire universe after they finish the Time Lords. “Rose” tells him that will be his punishment for using the weapon –he will live. Their conversation comes to a close when a time portal opens and spits out a red fez.
In the present, Eleven reads a letter from Elizabeth I, who asks for his help. What’s that? Another flashback? Allons-y, let’s go!
Ever wonder why Liz I and Ten were a thing? Turns out he suspected her of being a Zygon -a shapeshifting, memory-absorbing alien. (They’ve…they’ve totally done this in Supernatural guys. But more slimy and less sucker-y.) He proposes to her to prove she’s not really Queenie and she accepts; he takes this as proof. But as it turns out, her horse was the alien. Thus, he’s accidentally become king. Hate it when that happens. Ten chases after the alien and the queen into the woods, only to find himself staring at two Elizabeths. The same time portal opens up, and a fez plops out of it.
In the present, Eleven is brought to the depths of the National Gallery to see some more Time Lord paintings, which have the glass broken out from the inside –something is escaping out of the paintings. Without warning, the time warp opens up. He tosses in his fez and, with a hearty “Geronimo,” leaps after it.
Ten and Eleven meet. If you don’t feel all tingly and giddy inside about this, you need to re-examine your life. Zero comes shooting out of the portal as well, though he’s noticeably less surprised about the whole ordeal than his…selves? There’s some delightful banter –Hurt is like a crotchety ol’ grandpa to Tennant and Smith, and it is fantastically amusing. The queen-wearing alien comes to have The Doctors arrested and tossed in the Tower of London.
In the present, things are going awry. Turns out there are a bunch of Zygons that got out of those paintings, hellbent on… oh, probably world domination or whatever. Fortunately Osgood outsmarts her Zygon and gets away. Clara is brought to U.N.I.T. headquarters’ Black Archive in the TARDIS-proofed Tower of London, where they’re keeping Captain Jack’s wrist-based teleportation device. In the past, Eleven is scratching the activation code into the stone, which allows Clara to escape from the U.N.I.T. members, who are obviously all Zygons.
The Doctors, forced to endure themselves, talk about the last days of the Time War and what it takes to forget the children they’ve killed (/are going to kill), berating Zero for his choice. After arguing, they hatch a terribly clever plan to escape from their cell, which is interrupted when Clara simply walks though the unlocked door. Time to figure out what the Zygons want, thanks in no small measure to the indignant Lizzie 1.0, who fought off her Zygon attacker. Girl power!
Long story short, the Zygons are using the past to take over the future using the weaponry in the Black Archive, teleporting in using a stasis cube in the 3D paintings. Kate is poised to destroy London to save the world –she is about to detonate a nuclear warhead beneath the city, though a Zygon replicates her to prevent that. Meanwhile, Eleven calls her other assistant, Tom, and tells him to move the painting of the Time War into the Black Archive. The Doctors use the same techniques the Zygons did to get into the archive. There, Ten and Eleven activate the memory cubes, wiping everyone’s memories so they can’t tell if they’re Zygon or Human. Thus begins the peaceful diplomacy of writing out a fair treaty for the two races. Thrilling times!
Meanwhile, Zero decides he is ready to make the final decision on whether or not to destroy Gallifrey. Eleven and Ten show up to help him push the button so he doesn’t have to carry the burden alone; they’ve forgive him (and by extension themselves) for his decision. “Rose” activates a scene of the future, of the people they are set to destroy. Clara is all weepy, asking if that’s truly the only way. The Doctors all seem to think it is… until something starts to click in their brain (great hivemind or greatest hivemind?). Rather than destroy the planet to save the universe, they use the stasis cube to shift the entire planet into stasis and forcing the Daleks to blow themselves up in the crossfire. It will still look like Gallifrey was destroyed, but in fact it’s safe and sound. When they explain this plan to the council, the other Time Lords are incredulous; it can’t possibly work. But with the power of all the Doctors combined (all thirteen of them, meaning also Twelve, who we will no doubt meet soon) they can! Maybe! Who knows? It’s worth a shot.
After executing this plan, they arrive back at the National Gallery. Ten, Eleven, and Zero hang out with Clara, sipping tea, because that’s how British people handle strife. Ten and Zero won’t remember what happens because the time streams have crossed, which ought to be impossible, so the paradox won’t solidify as memories in their minds. Zero returns to his TARDIS and regenerates into One, beginning the series. Eleven tells Ten of Trenzalore before he leaves. Surprise, surprise, he Doesn’t Want to Go.
Eleven spends a moment alone contemplating No More/Gallifrey Falls, wondering where it came from. He muses aloud about retiring and becoming a curator. A voice sounds from behind him, suggesting that perhaps he may do just that. And Holy Fangirl, Batman, if it isn’t Tom Baker! Four and Eleven have a conversation that pretty much assures us that Gallifrey does not in fact fall, but has survived, as the true title of the painting is Gallifrey Falls No More. And thus The Doctor has a new mission, beyond his presumed death at Trenzalore.
Conclusion: most satisfactory. This special was great -filled with a bunch of homages to the earlier series, balanced but directed plotline, great acting, and even the cameo by Baker. It answered a bunch of questions about the Doctor’s mysterious past in a satisfying way, while still leaving room for more questions and adventures for the future. It had to be incredibly difficult to design an episode that could capture and honour what fans know and love about a show that’s been on for longer than a lot of them have even been alive. Moffat (along with Tennant, Smith, and Hurt) did a fantastic job of capturing what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who.
Happy 50th, Doctor Who. We’ll see you again in a month, to discover the final fate of Eleven.